Thursday, April 30, 2009

Remedial Mask Training is Indicated

The Mexican government has distributed more than six million masks, according to President Felipe Calderon, but are they actually effective or just a feel-good measure?

The cloth patches in green, blue and white are everywhere, clamped tight over the mouth and nose of teachers, toddlers, policemen and drunks. Even the statue at the church of St. Jude, patron of lost causes, has been fitted with a light-blue surgical mask to ward off swine flu.

But do they work?

After looking at a few news photos, I believe I can answer that question: they work better if you cover your nose as well as your mouth.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Green Cards for the GITMO Gang?

National Review's The Corner has a post today from Andy McCarthy concerning the Obama administration's announced intention to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay by January 2010, and to admit to the United Sates any jihadists made homeless by the closure (Detainees Cleared for Landing ... and You Get to Pay for It!). He asks a question that's been puzzling me, too.

The administration claims it is committed to restoring the "rule of law" that the Bush administration purportedly flouted. The law of the United States provides that aliens are excludable from the United States if they have been affiliated with terrorist organizations or have received terrorist training. How is admitting trained alien terrorists into the United States consistent with the rule of law?

Exactly what legal status will these ex-detainees have if they are admitted? Can they qualify for Lawful Permanent Residence? If not, then what?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Arrests Made in Lansdowne Murder, No Chinese Involvement

It looks like the murder of retired U.S. Army officer and CIA contractor William Bennett, and the near-fatal beating of his wife Cynthia, was a case of street crime and not Chinese retaliation for the mistaken targeting of their Belgrade embassy.

The Loudoun County Sheriff announced today that the four suspects he has in custody are ordinary domestic criminals who have committed a string of violent robberies and burglaries in the Northern Virginia area.

Two men with possible gang affiliations have been charged with capital murder and two other suspects are expected to be charged in the beating death of a Loudoun County man during a morning stroll with his wife last month, authorities said yesterday. The attack was a "random robbery gone bad," Loudoun Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson said.

Police began to home in on the four suspects while executing search warrants in connection with a flurry of burglaries, robberies and assaults in Loudoun County. Some suspects appear to be either members of or associated with a regional street gang, but it does not appear that the attacks were part of a gang initiation or ritual, authorities said.

Cynthia Bennett reportedly is recovering and is increasingly able to cooperate with police, so I expect we'll eventually learn her account of the attack.

This Never Happened to James Bond

What's up with all the mishandling of sensitive information over in the UK? Two weeks ago a counterterrorism police action was almost compromised when a senior official walked past press photographers holding an uncovered briefing memo, and now we learn that a British narcotics liasion officer in Colombia has mislaid a flash drive loaded with a ton of highly sensitive stuff.

British spy loses secrets in a handbag:

A BRITISH agent has thrown the war against drug traffickers into chaos by leaving top secret information about covert operations on a bus in South America.

In a blunder that has cost taxpayers millions of pounds and put scores of lives at risk, the drugs liaison officer lost a computer memory stick said to contain a list of undercover agents’ names and details of more than five years of intelligence work.

It happened when the MI6-trained agent left her handbag on a transit coach at El Dorado airport in Bogota, Colombia [TSB note: Bogota must have really cooled down since my years there, if she was allowed to ride around in an airport bus instead of an armored car]. Intelligence chiefs were forced to wind up operations and relocate dozens of agents and informants amid fears the device could fall into the hands of drugs barons.

-- snip --

Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, said: “This is an extremely sensitive part of Home Office operations and is the latest in a series of big data errors. It underlines why this government, and Jacqui Smith in particular, has to get to grips with security protocols.”

I have one word of advice for my fellow civil servants in the UK - Ironkey. (I'm loving mine).

Note to New Yorkers: Don't Bring a Grenade to a Gun Buyback

The program is 'no questions asked' for guns. For hand grenades, not so much.

NYPD: Man Brings Grenade To Gun Buyback:

New York City police were holding a suspect Saturday who they say tried to turn in a live hand grenade to police at a gun-buyback program in the Bronx.

Authorities say the NYPD's bomb squad responded to a church where guns were being collected at around 4:30 p.m. and left 15 minutes later with the grenade, carrying it out in a special carrier. The program, which offers $200 for guns no questions asked had started Saturday across the Bronx.

Police were questioning the man, who they didn't immediately identify, and it wasn't clear if he would face any charges.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Saudi Pin-up Girl

While in Riyadh last week I had occasion to visit a barracks that was used by Saudi security forces. It was like any other barracks: spartan bedrooms with wall lockers, phone numbers to pizza delivery joints scribbled here and there, a mattress placed on the roof by some sunbather, and so on. A few pictures were taped to the walls, but I noticed the curious absence of any pin-ups of women.

Then I saw it. Photos cut out of a glossy magazine depicting lavishly made-up and sensuous female eyes. Nothing but eyes. Evidently, this is what Saudi soft-core looks like.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

SODDI on the High Seas

Gee, Officer Krupke, don’t treat that boy rough!
His country's a mess, and he don’t eat enough.
Them pirates ain’t delinquents,
They’re just misunderstood,
Deep down inside them there is good!

-- Not from the Lyrics to West Side Story

Judging by today's post in Passport (Pirate Overkill) it sounds like someone is ready to break out in tears over the plight of Abdul Kadhir Muse, the Somali pirate who is now in U.S. custody. Muse, it seems, is merely a victim of his environment, a “malnourished 16-year old” who was produced by a “hellish situation” (which he certainly isn’t responsible for, since Somalia went to hell before he was even born), and who is now in big trouble for “participating in a criminal act.”

Muse was just participating in the violent seizure of a vessel, you see, which somehow sounds a bit more passive than saying that he committed a criminal act by firing on a vessel and threatening to kill the crew. For all we know, he might even have been an unwitting participant who was just hanging around with some other people when they seized the Maersk Alabama, in a maritime application of the trusty SODDI defense that courts hear every day.

Being born in Somalia and hungry all the time could turn anyone into a pirate, I suppose. When you put it that way, it sounds like he’s not fully responsible for his actions. He’s probably a good person at heart who, through no fault of his own, never had a positive role model and can’t be expected to know any better than to hijack ships and hold hostages. And the heartbreaking thing about it all is that the goofy kid broke out in a big grin when they put him in jail in New York because he knows that now he’ll finally get three square meals a day.

The poor boy! First, the sailors on the Maersk Alabama beat him up and took his AK-47, and now a bunch of mean scowling white men in the NYPD and FBI are – sniff, sniff – treating Muse like he’s a real criminal instead of someone who just needs a little direction in life.

It's the kind of sob-mongering I'd expect to hear from Muse's mother, not from a foreign policy journal. Personally, I’m holding back my tears. I’ll bet that Muse looked a lot more threatening to the sailors who saw him coming at them with an AK or an RPG.


Update (or maybe the word is predate):

I see that the extremely relevant Eagle Speak had a post yesterday with much more on the sympathetic treatment that young Mister Muse is getting from the news media, and that he also anticipated my 'Officer Krupke' bit. In my jet-lagged state I hadn't been keeping up with him often enough and didn't see that post until just now.

I should have known better than to write anything on the subject of Somali pirates before checking Eagle Speak. Lesson learned.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Some Informed Speculation About the Office of the Historian

Here's some info received today from Anger Management, a commenter who has been keeping me posted on the latest developments at the State Department's Office of the Historian.

Thanks again, AM.

Anger_Management said...

A new article by John Maggs at the National Journal (subscription required) asserts: "An unusual revolt by State Department employees is expected to trigger the ouster of the bureaucrat heading the Office of the Historian, a unique squad of 35 academics charged by statute with impartially chronicling America's foreign relations.

State Department Historian Marc Susser and his aide Douglas Kraft will be removed and offered other civil service positions, based on a recommendation by State's inspector general's office that will be finalized and published in the next two weeks, according to current and former employees of the office.

Although senior officials have not yet endorsed the recommendation, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Robert Wood last week began briefing staff historians on the decision, out of concern that several of them might soon quit or be forced out by Susser and Kraft. Susser's office said on Wednesday that he was on leave "for the next couple of days."

Seems like the die has been cast. It will be interesting to see the official announcement and -- as Maggs points out -- the extent to which the decision might have implications for other offices at the State Department, especially for those responsible for overseeing Susser's work.

So it looks like the OIG report is making its way through the DOS system. This is something to keep an eye on.


Update (April 21)

Here'a a link to an article on the state of the HO controversy by William Rogers Louis, which I hadn't seen before today even though it's a few weeks old: Preserving Our History: Unfinished Business at Foggy Bottom.

Two key quotes:

I served for nearly 10 years as a member of the [Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation], 5 of them as chairman. On December 10, 2008, I resigned to protest mismanagement of the State Department’s Office of the Historian, which is responsible for production of the series. For well over a year, members of the staff had reported to us examples of cronyism, favoritism in promotions, and forced resignations .... I witnessed a general atmosphere of mistrust and plummeting morale.

-- snip --

It is now up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to implement the [OIG] report’s recommendations. The scholarly community and interested citizens need to make sure that she does so ... Until the Secretary of State actually takes action there will be a fog of unfinished business at Foggy Bottom, and the future of the Foreign Relations series will remain in jeopardy.

I'm Out of Here

My work here is done, and I'm looking forward to the 14-hour flight back home tonight, connecting from Kuwait City.

Here's my top travel tip for Riyadh: Mama Noura. Great Lebanese/Arab food in Riyadh's closest approximation of a deli. Fresh-squeezed juices, manakeesh, and shawarma with hummus and Tahini sauce. The embassy drivers clued me in. Trust them to know where to find the best casual shawarma place in town.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Quick Note From the Kingdom

So I'm in Riyadh, hanging out in the DQ (which is not the Dairy Queen, by the way) and dealing with a huge amount of sand in the air. It's clearing up a bit today, but the past few days there has been so much sand in the air it sometimes looked like a light brown fog.

Monday, April 13, 2009

New Niche Market for Financial Consulting

I thought that a company named Wall Street Prison Consultants might specialize in teaching MBAs how to make a shank out of tightly-rolled Excel spreadsheets, or recommend the best smart phones to smuggle in during contact visits. Alas, it turns out they merely advise on how to game the prison system for early release programs.

Oh, well. I still like the idea of turning spreadsheets into shanks and shivs. Maybe I'll do an instructional video and put it on YouTube as a public service.

I can foresee a fascinating social experiment coming out of the present legal crack-down on financial felons: how will the new White Collar cons survive when thrown in with the traditional Aryan Brotherhood/Mexican Mafia types? The White Collars would have the advantages of high IQ and organizational skills, while the AB/MM would have feral cunning and an instinct for brute violence. Which side would win a prison yard war?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

So True

The Covert Comic discloses Secret 9111877, a bit of tradecraft employed by bureaucrats everywhere:

Having a meeting to attend is still the best way to get out of having to attend a meeting.

Yo, Ho, Ho, and a Bang! Bang! Bang!

It looks like the hostage-taking of that U.S. cargo ship Captain has had a three-quarters happy ending. Three out of four isn't bad.

I guess the only problem left now is how to dispose of the fourth pirate. If he is to be prosecuted, how and where? Reportedly, he's only 16 years old; does that present a bar to prosecuting him as an adult in a U.S. court?

TDY to the Magical Kingdom Next Week

Now and then I must leave my cubicle and travel. This time I'm heading out to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I'll spend the next week or so hip-deep in Matters of Official Concern. As the saying goes: "what happens in the Kingdom, stays in the Kingdom." Or maybe that's Las Vegas. Someplace with lots of sand, anyway. Still, I'll find something to report back about.

The Kingdom is a quirky place, to say the least, but I've come to like it. Although I went there for the first time only fairly recently - in 2003 - I've visited often since then, as many as four times a year, and for up to a month at a time. Moreover, due to the nature of my business there, I've spent almost all of that time traveling about outside U.S. official premises and working with more-or-less average Saudis (average for those who work in the oil sector, anyway). The place and the people are starting to make sense to me by now.

While traveling, I like to read books that were written in and about the place I'm visiting. On my last trip to the Kingdom I re-read Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence's memoir of the Arab Revolt. This time, I'm still searching for an appropriate book. By sheer chance, the book up next in my normal reading rotation is A Monarchy Transformed. Even though it's about 17th century Britain, I won't take that one along lest the title be misinterpreted.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Secret Memo + Telephoto Lens = Job Vacancy

The British press is not permitted to report details of the briefing note that Assistant Commissioner of Police Quick was holding when he walked past a line of news photographers outside #10 Downing Street on Wednesday. But that need not deter some of them from putting a blow-up of the document - slightly sanitized - on the Internet.

I am most impressed by the high quality of the optics used by British newspaper photographers.

As for Quick, he is now out of a job and deeply regrets his rash act.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Singular Case of the Unsecured Stationery

Pardon me, Assistant Commissioner Quick of Scotland Yard, but what's that document you're reading? The uncovered official-looking one you were holding when you were photographed getting out of Her Majesty's Sport Utility Vehicle, or whatever the British name may be for what we in Washington call a "G-Ride?" You know, that document about which it can be said without violating security that it appears to have the word "SECRET" printed in the header? Oops!

So much fuss could have been avoided by simply using one of Her Majesty's Classified Cover Sheets.

Ex-Commissioner Quick's overly casual reading habits bring back wonderful memories of a similar incident that occurred in Washington during the Cold War year of 1987. The February edition of the Foreign Service Journal featured an interview with Under Secretary of State for Management Ronald Spiers accompanied by a cover photo of the Under Secretary siting at his desk perusing an open copy of the National Intelligence Daily, a highly classified intelligence community publication. FSJ readers were quick to point out that, if you held the magazine upside down, you could read part of a Top Secret report about the situation in Lebanon.

Congress was not amused, what with U/S Spier's slip-up coming on the heels of many - actually serious - episodes of security laxity on the part of the State Department in 1986-87. Most others were very amused.

Hillary Announces a $5-a-Ticket Fundraiser

After triple-checking to make sure this isn't a delayed April Fools Day joke, I give you yesterday's Washington Post story on Hillary Clinton's latest plan to retire her $5.4 million campaign debt:

You might have thought that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had retired her $6 million presidential campaign debt a long time ago. Apparently not, judging from an e-mail we got from Hillary Clinton for President announcing a lottery -- only $5 a ticket -- and offering as prizes a day with Bill Clinton in New York, a trip to the "American Idol" finale in Los Angeles or a flight here for you and a guest for a tour of D.C. with political operatives and commentators James Carville and Paul Begala.

The last prize makes me curious. Are there really people who would pay $5 for the chance to hang out with Carville and Begala? It takes all kinds, I guess.

I don't know why Hillary bothers with fund-raisers in the first place. Can't she just make a quick $5.4 million investing in cattle futures again?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

75% of Americans Can't Be Wrong

A few days ago I noted that residents of Old Town Alexandria overwhelmingly oppose the idea of shipping terrorist detainees from Guantanamo Bay to their local Federal Courthouse. They aren't alone. According to Rasmussen Reports, 75% of Americans oppose bringing GITMO's inmates into the United States.

President Obama’s intelligence chief said last week that some inmates at the Guantanamo terrorist prison camp may be released in the United States, but just 13% of U.S. voters think that should be allowed.

Seventy-five percent (75%) say Guantanamo inmates should not be released in this country, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. Twelve percent (12%) are not sure.

For 75% of voters, safety is more important than fairness in determining where terrorist suspects are released. Only 17% say fairness is more important.

National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair also said some of these inmates may receive financial assistance from the government to ease their transition into society. Seventy-four percent (74%) oppose giving taxpayer money to former Guantanamo prisoners to help them return to society.

Sixteen percent (16%) think taxpayers should provide money to the inmates.

Assuming the Obama administration is serious about bringing some of the GITMO crowd to the U.S., I wonder whether they will be admitted conditionally or permanently, and how they will qualify for Green Cards? Or will Congress amend the immigration laws to create some special category of visa for them? Maybe the H-1T (for terrorist)?

My mind boggles at the problems this could present. Do these inmate/applicants even have passports? If not, will their home countries - like Yemen, home to the majority of the detainees - issue them passports? And then there are the usual admissibility questions. Do they have criminal records? Are they considered security risks? Do they have good moral character? Have they previously applied for a visa and been rejected? Do they have a legitimate reason for entry? Visible means of sustenance? Communicable diseases?

Why exactly are we trying to close down Camp GITMO?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Street Crime, or Chinese Retaliation?

The Cable has an item today that suggests there may have been a foreign angle to the unsolved murder of William Bennett, a retired U.S. Army officer and former CIA contractor, and the near-fatal beating of his wife, in suburban Virginia two weeks ago (Spooky murder in Loudon County, VA connected to 1999 Chinese embassy bombing?).

Last month, former Army officer William Bennett was found murdered after being out with his wife on an early morning walk in a residential neighborhood in Lansdowne, Virginia. His wife Cynthia was badly injured but survived the March 22nd attack, which is being investigated by local and federal authorities.

In 1999, sources bring to our attention, Bennett was a retired Army lieutenant colonel working at the CIA on contract as a targeter during the 78-day NATO air war on Kosovo. He was one of the people, according to a former U.S. intelligence source, who was later found responsible by the Agency for feeding the target into the system that resulted in the May 7, 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

I normally scoff when people advance convoluted assassination theories to explain what could more easily be explained by ordinary street crime, but in this case I find an assassination plausible.

It has been pretty well assumed by many Northern Virginia dwellers - myself included - that a senseless and highly violent crime like this one is most likely to be gang-related. Surprising as it may seem, there actually are gangs, like MS-13, in and around Northern Virginia bedroom communities. See this WaPo story, for example. BTW, the machete swinging MS-13'er mentioned in the linked article, Hayner Flores, attended high school with one of my sons, so I can personally attest that they turn up in the unlikeliest of white bread places.

But the few known circumstances of the crime just don't fit the gang profile. Mr. Bennett and his wife were attacked while they were walking or jogging along a road in Lansdowne at 5:30 AM, which is a time and place when I wouldn't expect to come across meth-heads or crack addicts. For another thing, the only witness to any part of the incident said the attackers left in a white van, a type of vehicle that I also don't associate with gang-bangers out cruising.

Furthermore, Bennett was a former Army Special Forces officer. Retired old geezer or not, he certainly would have put up a hell of a fight when he and his wife were attacked by - as is reported - three men armed with blunt weapons. He might have been a match for three MS-13'ers, who typically are undernourished Salvadorean teenagers. Three professional thugs with baseball bats, however, would be a very different matter.

Would the Chinese actually track down and murder Bennett in retaliation for his accidental targeting of their Belgrade embassy? It seems so, well, Cold War-ish.

Visa Denial for Iraqi Translator

Consumer Notice: This post is certified to be 100% free of Matters of Official Concern that are not referenced from publicly available sources of information.

A commenter asked me:

Have you seen this about the Iraqi translator that was denied a US visa? I'm wondering what your take on this sort of thing is.

I have no knowledge about consular or visa matters in general, much less this case in particular, so I looked up the State Department's publicly available description of the visa program under which the Iraqi translator applied.

He applied for a very narrow category of Special Immigrant Visa, for which he evidently is qualified. His problem was that in order to be approved for an SIV he also had to meet the regular admissibility requirements for an immigrant to the United States. The translator's criminal record makes him generally inadmissible, so his request for an SIV was denied.

U.S. immigration law seems reasonably clear on the matter of criminal records. The news reports I've seen often confused the SIV program for Iraqi and Afghan translators with the more generous programs for refugees who fear persecution, however, there are big differences. This comparison explains the differences, one of which is that SIV applicants:

Must be otherwise eligible to receive an immigrant visa and [be] otherwise admissible to the U.S. for permanent residence, except in determining such admissibility, the grounds for inadmissibility specified in section 212 (A)(4) of such Act (8 U.S.C. 1182 (a)(4) relating to "public charge" shall not apply).

It has been alleged that the translator was denied an SIV out of some personal pique or bias against him by U.S. embassy personnel in Baghdad, but I very much doubt that was the case. The State Department has no choice but to implement the immigration laws that Congress passed and the President signed.

So, what can the translator in question do now? He might be able to apply for a waiver of inadmissibility by arguing that his crime of stealing Uday Hussein's car shouldn't be held against him [personally, I'd give him a waiver just for having had the stones to do that]. Or, possibly, he might reapply under the refugee visa program on grounds that he has a reasonable fear of persecution due to his affliation with the U.S. government.

The 'fear of persecution' angle is working for Aunt Zeituni, our KAOPOTUS, why shouldn't it work for one of our Iraqi translators as well?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Gasoline Prices Not Expected to Climb

Here's a good word from the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration:

Although future market conditions are highly uncertain, EIA does not see gasoline prices climbing to [last summer's $3 and up] levels this year. It does seem likely, however, that gasoline prices will average more than $2 per gallon this summer.

I can live with $2 a gallon gas.

Aunt Zeituni Gets Another Reprieve

The Boston Herald reports today that Obama’s aunt can stay in the U.S. another year. The Kenyan aunt of the President of the United States - I guess that makes her "KAOPOTUS" - is the country's most famous illegal alien and absconder. She has lived in South Boston public housing projects, unmolested by either state or federal authorities, since a federal immigration judge ordered her to leave the country in 2004.

She had already lived in the U.S. for several years before the law caught up with her. In fact, according to the Boston Herald, she received a U.S. Social Security card in 2001 (whether legally or illegally, I have no idea).

In 2002, she applied for political asylum in the U.S. due to violence in her native Kenya. I don't know what the crime rate is in Kenya, but it must be impressive indeed if KAOPOTUS prefered to continue living in the Old Colony housing development in Southie rather than go back home.

Highlights of the story:

President Barack Obama’s aunt, who has been living illegally in the U.S. for years, can stay in the United States until next year while she awaits a decision on her fight against deportation, according to a spokesman for her attorney.

- snip -

A hearing on an appeal of her deportation was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. today at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston, which houses the Boston Immigration Court. The proceedings were closed to the public. Immigration Judge Leonard Shapiro scheduled a second hearing on her case [TSB note: in connection with a previously granted motion to reopen her case to fight the 2004 removal order] for Feb. 4, 2010.

So she can stay in the U.S. for at least one more year, and gets another chance to fight the 2004 deportation order. But hasn't she worn out her welcome in Boston? That city has already provided her with housing and medical services for at least seven years. Wouldn't KAOPOTUS be more comfortable in another public housing project, say, the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC?